Aug 5 2021

Lessons from the Pandemic: a Mid-Mortem

It feels like it may be a bit premature to write a post with this title here in the summer of 2021. Even as vaccines are rolling out fairly quickly, the combination of the Delta mutation of the COVID-19 virus and a bizarrely large anti-vaccine movement in the US, plus slower vaccine roll-outs in other parts of the world, are causing yet another spike in infections. 

However, I read Michael Lewis’s The Premonition last week, a bit of a “mid-mortem” on the Pandemic, and it got me thinking about what lessons we as a society have learned in these past 18 months, and how they can be applied to entrepreneurs and startups. I am particularly drawing on the few weeks I was deeply engaged with the State of Colorado’s COVID response effort, which I blogged about here (this is the 7th post in the series, but it has links to all the prior posts in order).

Here are a few top of mind thoughts. 

First, entrepreneurial skills can be applied to a wide range of society’s challenges.  The core skills of founders and entrepreneurs are vision, leadership/inspiration/mobilization of teams, and a fearlessness about trying things and then seizing on the ones that work and rapidly discarding the ones that don’t, quickly absorbing learnings along the way. If you look broadly at the world’s response to the Pandemic, and at Colorado’s response as a microcosm, you can see that the jurisdictions and organizations that employed those types of skills were the ones that did the best job with their response. The ones that flailed around — unclear vision, lurching from plan to plan and message to message, pandering to people instead of following the science, sticking with things that didn’t make sense — those folks got it wrong and saw more infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. 

Second, parachuting in and out of leadership roles really works but is a little bit unsatisfying. I think that, even in a short period of time, I got a lot of good work done helping organize and stand up the IRT in Colorado. It was very much an “interim CEO” job, not unlike a lot of the roles we place at Bolster. Without a ton of context around the organization I was joining, I still had an impact. The unsatisfying part is more about me as the exec than it is about the organization, though. I’m so used to being around for the long haul to see the impact of my work that I found myself pinging Sarah, who took over the leadership of the group after I left, Brad, and Kacey and Kyle on the teamfor a few weeks just to find out what was going on and what had become of Plan X or Idea Y. 

Third, I came to appreciate something that I used to rail against in the business world, or at least came to appreciate an alternative to it. I frequently will say something like “don’t solve the same problem four different ways,” almost always in response to people facing a big hole in the organization and trying to hire four different people to fill the hole, when likely one hire will do (or at least one for starters). But what Michael Lewis calls the “Swiss cheese defense” or Targeted Layered Containment (TLC) that worked pretty well as defense and mitigation against the virus while there was no vaccine totally worked. He calls it the Swiss cheese defense because, like a slice of Swiss cheese, each layer of defense has holes in it, but if you line up several slices of Swiss cheese just right, you can’t see any of the holes. Some masking here, some quarantining there, couple closures over there, a lot of rapid testing, some working from home where possible, some therapeutics – and voila – you can blunt the impact of a pandemic without a vaccine. The same must be true for complex problems in business. I am going to amend my approach to consider that alternative next time I have a relevant situation. 

Fourth, blunt instruments and one size fits all solutions to complex problems (especially in this situation, with multiple population types in multiple geographies) — even those with good intentions — can’t work, drive all sorts of unintended consequences, with a lack of feedback loops can make situations worse or at least frustrating. Nationwide or even statewide rules, quite frankly even county-wide rules, don’t necessarily make sense in a world of hot spots and cool spots. Statewide regulations for schools when districts are hyper local and funded and physically structured completely differently, don’t always make sense. There are definitely some comparables in the business world here – you’d never want, for example, to compensate people across all geographies globally on the identical scale, since different markets have different standards, norms, and costs of living. 

Finally, I am left with the difficult question of why all the preparation and forethought put into pandemic response seemed to fail so miserably in the US, when several nations who were far worse equipped to handle it in theory did so much better in reality. I am struggling to come up with an answer other than the combination of the general American theme of personal choice and liberty meeting the insanely toxic and polarizing swirl of politics and media that has made everything in our country go haywire lately. Big government incompetence in general, and failures of national leadership on this issue, also factor in heavily.  I also gather from Michael Lewis that the transition from one administration to another frequently involves a massive loss of institutional knowledge which can’t help. Of all these, failure of strong leadership stands out in my mind. 

The lesson for startups from this last point is important. Leadership matters. Eisenhower once said something to the effect that “plans are nothing but planning is everything.”  The thoughtfulness, thorough planning, communication and inspiration, and institutional knowledge that come from effective leadership matter a lot in executing and growing a startup, because you literally never know what COVID-analog crisis is lurking quietly around the corner waiting to pounce on your startup and threaten its very existence.